It's a snowy round trip


McHENRY - Tourism is serious business, but it doesn't sound that way as tots and their parents hurtle and spiral their way down a snow-covered slope in inner tubes, giggling or shrieking as if in a Stephen King horror film.

They're testing far Western Maryland's new tourist draw - a snow-tubing park that opened in December and is luring curious Baltimore and Washington-area visitors, many of whom hadn't previously included this remote part of the state on their list of weekend getaways.

Bear Claw Tubing Park, which cost about $1 million to create, sends its customers careering down any of six 750-foot banked shoots in a red inner tube fitted with handles. Its success lies in simplicity: Snow tubing isn't likely to qualify as an Olympic sport. If you can sit down, you can tube.

But it's not dull. "It's much faster than I expected. Much faster," says Janet Novak, an organizer of the Columbia-based Special Olympics Maryland, who couldn't resist a tubing run while here planning for her organization's winter sports festival later this month.

Like many tubers, Novak doesn't ski. She says she's happy to get that "stomach-in-your-throat kind of fun" on the less challenging tubing slope instead of on a downhill trail.

Although many tubers are younger than Novak - many tubers are in their teens - the age range on a typical day runs from about 4 to 70 or older. A recent floodlit evening session included preschooler Joey Clark of North Potomac, who barely met the 42-inch minimum height requirement. When he scrunched into his tube, all that was visible was a pair of tiny black boots pointing into the air.

"Sometimes we'll swear it's an empty tube going down, and then we'll say, 'Wait there is a kid in that tube," says park staff member Ian Meeks. A tow rope pulls tube and rider back up the hill when the run is over.

The park is part of a plan by its parent, Wisp ski resort, to turn Garrett County into a center for "adventure sports." In the next 10 years, Wisp and other interests plan to add new features in and around the resort, including housing, a ski lodge and trails, a whitewater canoe and kayak course, a rope course and an adventure sports museum.

"This is the X, Y, Z Generation - or whatever you want to call it," says Bill Quigley, Wisp's chief executive officer. "The bottom line is the kids need to be entertained."

Wisp, near Deep Creek Lake, already offers 22 slopes and trails as well as rentals of skis, snowboards, snowshoes and snow bikes - which are essentially pedal-less mountain bikes mounted on skis.

But it's the tubing park that's creating the buzz. It lies several hundred yards from a downhill ski slope and is slightly less imposing, but offers a view of mountains and valleys from the top.

"There are people who don't want to strap skis or other foreign objects to their feet, but they find this accessible," says Mindy Bianca of the state Office of Tourism Development.

When the slope's surface becomes especially slick, the park switches to a type of tube that keeps speeds in check. Besides the slow tubes, there are varieties with a black vinyl bottom that offer moderate speed and a hard plastic shell that is extraordinarily fast, says Jerry Geisler, a Wisp vice president.

Bianca and a handful of her state tourism colleagues checked out the park last week - "We did some field testing," says one - and pronounced it an early success.

The tubing and other outdoors activities may change a mindset that many Marylanders have about crossing into the state's western panhandle, Bianca says.

"For some reason, people will drive three hours to Ocean City but they won't want to go three hours to the west. Western Maryland is like the last frontier, but it shouldn't be," she said. "After Sept. 11, I think a lot of people from D.C. are coming here as an escape."

Weekend sessions - eight are usually offered with 200 tubers in each - have been selling out. The park draws customers from Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and even Ohio.

Avoiding the weekend crush, Francesca Clark - Joey's mom - says she and a few neighboring Montgomery County families pulled their children out of school early one day last week to check out the park together. The next day was a school holiday because of teachers' conferences, and the group of 16 wanted to get an early start.

"We took them out of school at 11:30 and they were in the hallway and the teachers and everybody knew. We were caught red-handed," Clark says.

She says it was worth it. She and the children made several runs during their session, which lasted two hours and cost $14. (Weekend lift tickets for adult skiers cost three times as much.) Sometimes they clasped each other's tubes and slid down in tandem, three or four at a time.

Six boys from Maryland School for the Blind in Baltimore joined them on the slope. The teens were accompanied by "coaches" in joined tubes. "I've been down twice and I want to go down again," said one of the boys, Matthew Plantz.

For years, a limited water supply for snow-making stalled construction of the tubing park. That changed when the resort got state permission last year to pump millions of gallons a year from Deep Creek Lake.

Organized snow tubing has been around since at least the 1980s, according to the National Ski Areas Association, a Colorado-based trade group. But its popularity has been booming lately - owing to its ease and affordability, says association spokeswoman Stacy Gardner Stoutenberg.

The group says about a third of the nation's 490 ski resorts offer snow tubing, which seems to strike a balance between safety and thrills.

"I'd like a nice funeral, please," says Barbara McKenney of nearby Kitzmiller as she contemplates heading up the hill for a ride. But she seemed exhilarated upon her return - except for one minor complaint.

Her tube had spun around: "I don't like to go backward!"

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